Birds, bees, adulterers

Anatomy of Love
By Helen E. Fisher
Norton, 431 pages, $22.95
Reviewed by Michelle Erica Green
A writer and critic
"I firmly believe that the better we come to understand our human heritage, the greater will be our power over it," writes Helen E. Fisher in the preface to Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce. Unfortunately, Fisher mystifies human behavior more effectively than she explains it. Though her 98 pages of notes appear erudite, don't be fooled: Anatomy of Love is pop science masquerading as scholarship, using outdated sources, questionable methods, and poorly cited statistics to produce an entertaining but unconvincing theory of sexual evolution.

Fisher, author of The Sex Contract, presents little new information about sex, but this is unsurprising in light of the fact that she offers almost no original research. However, she does place the facts she cites into provocative new combinations: she makes witty if dubious links, for example, between the sexual behavior of chimpanzees, Amazon tribal cultures, and Americans at singles bars.

While she encourages readers to examine her notes and appendices, Fisher rarely presents the full data from the research she cites, nor does she discuss why she chose her examples. Thus Anatomy of Love uses anthropology to entertain rather than to inform. Fisher includes sexy anecdotes about sex among the !Kung Bushmen, where children witness one parent's adultery and threaten to tell the other parent while women seduce boys they are supposed to chaperone. These stories offer provocative glimpses into the varieties of human sexuality, but Fisher then manipulates them into the basis of her assumptions about ancient humans.

Though she dutifully notes that many of her colleagues have shrunk away from using the !Kung "as a model for reconstructing life in our hunting-gathering past," Fisher fails to explain that many anthropologists find such studies superficial and dangerous. The differences in era and geography, along with changes in the !Kung culture wrought by those who study it, make comparisons untenable. Fisher treats the !Kung as barely human, linking them to various primates, yet in an attempt to "prove" a biological basis for adultery, she anthropomorphizes the behavior of birds, monkeys, and other species. She also presents Neanderthals as prototypical Homo Sapiens, despite the widely-held theory that no direct evolutionary link exists between the ancient species and contemporary humans.

The outdated scholarship in Anatomy of Love renders the book more titillating than troublesome. I was particularly amused by Fisher's suggestion that the wearing of high heels represents a female evolutionary breakthrough. Because such shoes force women to arch their backs, sway their hips, and thrust their breasts forward, Fisher sees them as a logical development of the tendency of female monkeys in heat to display their genitals. That they also prevent women from running away from predators doesn't rate her concern.

Thus this book reinforces common sexist and heterosexist beliefs, yet offers no assumptions that haven't been made before. Though Fisher points out that homosexuality is "exceedingly common in nature," all her examples tie it to biological or environmental deprivation, a link rejected elsewhere by sociologists. A theory linking testosterone to male mathematical superiority has been challenged by educators, and the innate presence of overpowering maternal instincts in human females, here assumed to be instinctive and universal, has been debunked by psychologists.

Anatomy of Love does offer a few new suggestions which are sure to make Fisher a popular guest on talk shows. She hypothesizes a marital "four-year itch," rather than the traditional seven, stemming from the short-term brain chemistry of infatuation. She indicates that, contrary to many studies, women in most cultures commit adultery at rates similar to those of men. And she states that divorce, teenage pregnancy, and abortion are the result of evolutionary rather than social forces--a concept certain to disturb people of varying political persuasions. Fisher's conclusions will probably fuel the debate already raging this year in books like You Just Don't Understand, The War Against Women, and The Erotic Silence of the American Wife.

This review was originally published in The Chicago Tribunein 1993.

Get Critical